Unfortunately, many children must face devastating events during their childhood. Thankfully, these events don’t have to be as tragic and disheartening as they often seem. Our family experienced this firsthand when we lost our home in the 13th largest wildfire in California history. The Carr Fire destroyed almost 1100 homes and burned 229,651 acres in July 2018.
Although this tragedy was a difficult thing to experience, we were fortunate to be able to walk with our children through the experience. We have been asked many times how we parented through such an event. As I said in this article, we parented as consistently and as normally as the situation would allow, we parented with empathy, we allowed our children to be sad, and more than anything, we parented with hope and confidence that we could all form resilience from tragedy.
Below I have outlined several points to consider as you parent your children through tragedy. Keep in mind, it is important to remember that all children, all situations, and all families are different. Knowing your child is absolutely crucial in walking them through a devastating event in your lives.
Children and teens can experience extreme fear after a tragic event and can exhibit changes in their typical behavior. You may see a young child have trouble sleeping, eating, going to the bathroom, or any other form of regression. Kids of all ages may experience anger and frustration, sadness, or an inability to focus.
All of this is normal behavior when a young child or teen experiences toxic stress in their lives. The important thing to remember about toxic stress, is that it can be extremely damaging to a child’s developing brain. (See my article of Adverse Childhood Experiences.) BUT, it doesn’t have to be a detrimental experience. When adults walk alongside the child, work with them through emotions, and offer support, the stress can lead to resilience.
Additionally, it is important for parents to know where their child is developmentally. Younger children may react differently than teens. Younger kids may cry and be irritable, while teens may want to isolate themselves. Some kids may want to talk about what happened, while others may want to shut the event out of their mind.
Kids of all ages may not have appropriate coping skills for their feelings. Open discussion and healthy modeling are crucial at this point to help kids avoid risky and dangerous choices as a means to cope. (Think smoking as a way to calm stress, or driving recklessly to feel in control.) Some younger kids may benefit from drawing pictures, writing, or singing about what happened. Older kids may benefit from journaling or making gratitude lists.
Since many kids don’t have the ability to express themselves, teaching and modeling healthy emotional intelligence is another important step in this process. Giving feelings a name, and learning that all feelings are OK is the basis of emotional intelligence. Additionally, teaching that how we respond to our emotions is important. Feeling angry is OK, but hitting out of anger is not. Feeling sad is OK, but secluding ourselves into sadness is not. After loss or a tragic event, kids can feel powerless, afraid, sad, lonely, that life isn’t fair, and many other emotions. All of these are valid and OK. How we respond to them is what’s important.
Keep dialogue open. Make sure kids have factual knowledge of what happened and allow them to express any concerns they have. Many kids may fear something horrible like this will happen again or that the world isn’t safe. Be sure to listen to them when they express concerns, even if they seem trivial. To your child, these concerns are not trivial, but very real.
How you react to tragedy is as important as how you walk your child through it. They look to you for guidance and as a model for how to live and handle situations. Remaining calm is important, but it is also important for your child to see you handle sadness, anger, frustration, and devastation.
Make a plan for the future. Children find comfort in knowing what’s going on. It can be beneficial for kids to know what to do when emergencies happen. Have a meeting place, know what to grab in the event you are evacuated, sign up for emergency alerts, make a communication plan, make lists of phone numbers or documents or items to have handy, and pack emergency kits.
Teach kids its OK to ask for help. This one was a struggle for me. I don’t like asking for help, but in the days following the fire we had as close to nothing as you can imagine. With little time to evacuate, we weren’t able to pack much. I literally had one pair of shorts and flip flops. But when tragedy strikes, people want to help. We were blessed with so much from our community. When we get to the point we can give back, we plan to do that so our kids can be part of the giving. Let your kids know they are not alone in their struggles.
Get back to normal as soon as you can. For us, after our home was destroyed, we had to live in a hotel for two weeks and then moved into a rental house. Our life was chaos for several months as we started rebuilding and trying to find our new normal. But whatever aspects of life we could get “normal” we did. Our daughter still attended dance camp the following week. We still went swimming at the hotel pool and Grandpa’s house. We parented as close to normal as the situation allowed.
If you believe your child has experienced true traumatic stress from a devastating event, please seek professional help. It was months after the fire that our daughter mentioned having nightmares. Coincidently, it was months before I had reoccurring nightmares about the fire. Signs of traumatic stress may not present right away. But if you or your child need extra help, please reach out to a licensed therapist in your area. Your and your child’s mental health are incredibly important and worth the time.
Processing through trauma, loss, and tragedy can be an emotional rollercoaster. The grief process can be debilitating, scaring, and difficult. But there will come a time when the pain of grief isn’t as strong as it is in the beginning. When we make healthy choices during the grief process, we can build resilience and come out of the process stronger than ever.
You can read more on our journey after the Carr Fire on our Facebook page. Here are a few stories:
By: Emily Scott, PhD
Here are more uplifting pictures of our home as we rebuilt.